Rising star Aleksandar Rakic can see a title shot coming in the near future, but he’ll need to beat former light heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz in the main event of UFC on ESPN 36 Saturday to get that chance.
Rakic, the No. 3 contender in the UFC’s light heavyweight division, comes into the fight as a -200 favorite over the No. 1 contender Blachowicz (+170), according to DraftKings Sportsbook.
Blachowicz recovers from temporary paralysis
Rakic (14-2) has won six of his seven fights since joining the UFC ranks in 2017. He hasn’t fought since beating Thiago Santos by decision back in March 2021. He expected to fight Blachowicz in March, before Blachowicz suffered a neck injury and was temporarily paralyzed. Since then, he appears to have made a full recovery.
In the meantime, Rakic says he has been working on his game.
“It’s a 14-month layoff for me, but I’ve been really working hard this last 14 months,” Rakic told reporters. “I’ve been improving all my skills and I got one year older, that means I’m one year smarter. Can’t wait. I’m so excited for the fight. Believe it or not, I’m enjoying the weight cut. It’s 14 months I didn’t fight.”
According to Blachowicz (28-9), he has fully recovered from his injury and is ready to go. In fact, he said little about the injury in the leadup to this fight, seemingly brushing off what many would see as a life-altering experience.
“They put some medicine in my neck, and I’m ready,” Blachowicz told Sports Illustrated. “I came back to the gym and it was just like before. I’ll be 100 percent for this fight.”
Light heavyweight title shot on the line
Both men understand the stakes of this fight. Current champion Glover Teixeira – who earned the title by beating Blachowicz last October at UFC 267 – is fighting Jiri Prochazka in June. The winner of Saturday’s bout will emerge as the likely challenger to the champion.
“This is the biggest fight of my life fighting a former champ,” Rakic said. “I beat him on Saturday, the No. 1 contender – there’s no doubts that I’m going to fight for a title next. Absolutely, for me in my position, it feels like a title eliminator fight.”
Blachowicz sees the same path to a title shot. But the former champion has even more motivation. A win on Saturday could create a rematch with Teixeira, provided he beats Prochazka as well. Blachowicz said he’s hoping Teixeira wins that fight.
“A little bit, yes, because I would like to do rematch with him and take the belt from his hands,” Blachowicz told reporters. “I hope if he defends the belt, he will not retire.”
No matter who wins, however, the 39-year-old Blachowicz wants one more crack at UFC gold. He likened his desire to that of a famous character from Lord of the Rings – one who also couldn’t resist going for some hardware.
“You know Gollum? The ring is his precious,” Blachowicz said. “I am like Gollum. That is my precious. I want to get the belt back.”